PRINT April 2004


RoseLee Goldberg on historicizing performance

IMAGINE STARTING OUT as a painter and having no recourse to twentieth-century paintings: no Matisse, no Pollock, no Guston. Now, imagine starting out as an artist who thinks of sound, space, movement, and the body as raw material and who lacks access to the works of Yves Klein, Joseph Beuys, or Joan Jonas. It’s unimaginable for the artist who works in paint but standard for the artist who works in performance.

But is this necessarily so? Is this disconnect from history an inevitable component of performance, because the practice is by nature ephemeral? Or is something else at issue—lack of access to and familiarity with the hundred-year history of “live art”? Though the value of access to the “real thing” in museums should never be underestimated, young painters learn a great deal by looking at reproductions in magazines or slide projections in lecture halls. Their real advantage, therefore, seems to be the existence of the century-old autonomous discipline of art history whose agreed-on vocabulary and range of theories formal and social support and contextualize the Story of Art. For the artwork that leaves nothing or little behind we lack the kind of shorthand taken for granted in discussions of the “solid arts.” We may even be using the problems of reproducibility as an excuse for this ignorance.

Not only does performance have little to physically present in an exhibition format, it has often been made precisely to undermine the notion of collecting and preservation as well as the kind of art-historical scrutiny described above. But work of this kind now cuts a broad swath through the artmaking of the past quarter century, and to consider the practices of artists as diverse as James Lee Byars, Paul McCarthy, Maurizio Cattelan, Janine Antoni, and Fischerspooner one must take a cue from the art historians and learn to read the pictures.

Though it’s been famously suggested otherwise, I’d like to categorically state that it’s OK if you weren’t there. Photographs of a performance are not only records of a onetime event; they also carry myriad clues to be cobbled together for examination and analysis. Take, for example, a black-and-white photo of Simone Forti’s Crawling, 1974, in which the artist, in white T-shirt and sweatpants, moves on hands and knees past visitors sitting on the wood floorboards of an old SoHo loft. The Conceptual art–era preference for unadorned documentation, the audience members willing to forgo chairs (try asking a Prada-clad audience to do this today), and the no-to-virtuosity, no-to-spectacle (as Yvonne Rainer put it in her manifesto of 1965) demeanor of the performer constitute a gold mine of information about the context, the mores, and the stakes that evening thirty years ago. By contrast, look at a photo of Balkan Baroque, 1997: Marina Abramovic in full color, raven hair falling over a white floor-length tunic, sitting in an enormous pile of cow bones and using her entire body to scrub them clean of blood and grit. The glossiness of the photograph, its close framing of a centrally placed figure, the title’s reference to ethnic cleansing, and, not least, the artist’s painted toenails are all giveaways that this is a work of the ’90s, made at a point when she was evolving away from the purism embodied in Rainer’s words toward an embrace of some key issues of the times: the power of mediation and iconic picture-making as well as the problems of globalization and the art marketplace.

Such readings are slowly becoming the stuff of dissertations in performance-studies programs across the country and the ever-growing library of material focusing especially on the ’70s and onward. Yet the importance of this kind of research becomes all the more clear when one considers members of a younger generation—say, the thirty-nine-year-old Berlin-based John Bock, whose work would hardly make sense at all without some historical context and the capacity of an audience to “read” what he’s doing. One of a few who are making a point of mining the pasts of performance, film, theater, and rock ’n’ roll for his art, Bock gladly lists not only Alice Cooper, Dean Martin, and Elvis but also Bertolt Brecht, Salvador Dalí, Joseph Beuys, and the Viennese Actionists among his influences; Raymond Roussel and Hansworst, a classic buffoon from German folk comedy, are also central in this mix. Critics, similarly, have compared him both to Buster Keaton and Harpo Marx and to Kurt Schwitters and Martin Kippenberger. Bock seduces viewers with a fabulous stage presence, a jittery, long-legged strut, and a piercing glare from eyes set deep in a sculpted face. Moving fast to his own I-am-what-I-am beat, he gives wild, focused lectures on personal cosmologies—a kind of deeply absurd Beuys-as-conspiracy-theorist—while strewing his stage with fruit and vegetables, shaving cream, buttons, colorful sculpted contraptions, and, on occasion, live frogs. In a performance at Documenta 11, he and several cohorts performed on three makeshift platforms in a field, wearing quasi-medieval costumes (velveteen bustiers, obscenely protruding bustles) to mock-wrestle and loudly grouse in antics that would have made an abused court jester smile. But Bock’s references aren’t limited to the entertainers of Camelot: His manic science experiments with exploding paint balls and cabbages reek of the Nutty Professor’s ’60s, while his timing, his wild stare, and his toothy grin are pure turn-of-the-millennium Jim Carrey.

Indeed, Bock uses the provocative possibilities of a century of performance to liberate his own fantasies. More recently, his videos show him balancing art and documentation. Expertly shot by Knut Klassen and edited by Marc Aschenbrenner as though the camera were Bock’s body or Bock’s eyes were the camera, these shimmering, visionary figments of an unstoppable imagination are critical to the ongoing debate on how to read and remember live art’s history while contributing to a performance idiom of the future.

New York–based critic RoseLee Goldberg frequently writes on performance.